Friday, March 29, 2013

March 29, 2013--The Supremes

For many days now banner headlines in the New York Times and elsewhere have been reporting about oral arguments before the Supreme Court about Prop 8 in California and the Defense of Marriage Act, both intended to limit or out-and-out forbid same-sex marriage.

On Wednesday the Times' headline was--Justices Say Time May be Wrong for Ruling on Gay Marriage.

I get it. It's an important issue that concerns fairness and equality and with nine states now permitting same-sex marriage it is understandable that SCOTUS agreed to consider it. Pundits and legal analysts have been attempting to read the tea leaves and most are predicting the Court is looking for some way to kick the issue down the road and not get in the way of the states, which are one-by-one dealing with it in a federalist way.

Fine.  But to me of considerably more importance, though much less reported, are the anticipated rulings by the Court about cases that could severely limit affirmative action and the protection of voting rights. In both instances the four conservative justices and the one "swing" judge appear to be saying that neither affirmative action nor the federal protection of people's right to vote were meant to be eternal--both were legislated to solve a "temporary" set of problems and once these were "solved," affirmative action and voting rights laws should be allowed to lapse.

The evidence is clear that neither job is complete. Even a casual look at the data reveals that voter suppression is still widespread (take note of the nine Republican controlled states--where the governor and a veto-proof majority in the state legislatures are Republicans--that attempted to jigger the system to suppress minority votes in the last election cycle); and enrollments in colleges and universities are still disproportionately skewed to exclude people of color.

My reading of the tea leaves is that both sets of protection are imperiled. So how might we think about this going forward?

We need to transcend the issue of race and even gender and instead focus on class.

Through this lens it is even more evident that there are gross inequalities, with low-income people dramatically underrepresented in college and universities as well as at the ballot box. And when looking at who is poor in America it is still predominately white people. Yes, African Americans and Hispanics are still, in percentage terms, the most excluded, in absolute numbers there are many more Anglos living in poverty. This reality might help make such a class-based approach politically palitable.

A personal anecdote--when I was at NYU there was race-based admissions and scholarship practices in place to assure at least a modicum of racial diversity. So when Bill Cosby's son applied and was admitted and offered a scholarship for minority students, I wondered if this made sense. I knew there were many low-income, culturally-isolated white students living on Staten Island who were not applying in significant numbers and those few who were admitted (with no affirmative-action assistance) were not offered equivalent financial support.

Class is not a comfortable issue for most Americans. Even advocating that we talk about it and equity evokes cries of "Class warfare!" Well, if there is any class warfare currently underway in American the most affluent are winning and passing along to their children their advantages.

If we are serious about ameliorating inequality, it is long past due when we should make class the central issue that it in fact is

Thursday, March 28, 2013

March 28, 2013--Snowbirding: Paddling With Gators

Growing up in Brooklyn, the only contact we had with alligators was with those that inhabited the sewers that ran beneath our streets. 
As unlikely as this seems, these alligators were said to have been released down storm drains after they got too big to remain as pets in our cramped apartments.  Pet stores sold them as babies and if one was able to keep them alive (not at all easy), after a few months they were too large for their bureau-top fish tanks. So into the sewer they were dumped, where, allegedly, they grew to mammoth size.  Needless to say, this was never confirmed by any credible source—they are tropical and New York is freezing during the winter--but live on in our fantasies they did, inhabiting our fears and imagination. 
So when the other morning Rona suggested we load up on sunscreen and head for the Everglades where, she enthused, we could rent a canoe and paddle around in the saw grass and among the tree islands, when she suggested this, I timidly asked, “Aren’t there alligators there?  You know, this is Florida and . . .” 
“Don’t be such a baby.  When was the last time you heard about an alligator attacking a person?” 
To tell the truth we’ve been hearing more about houses being sucked into sinkholes than gators lunching on people. 
“I heard that in Loxahatchee they rent canoes and that the channel into the Everglades is well marked.” 
I tried to wiggle out by wondering out loud, “Have you ever been in a canoe, much less paddle one?” 
“Once years ago.  I think in Central Park Lake.  But you rowed on the crew in college, didn’t you?”  I nodded.  “So, my big boy, I’ll depend on you to teach me and keep me safe.”  Her smile was radiant.  “It’s only a half hour from here.  It’s a beautiful and cool morning and it’ll be fun.  Come one.”  She was pulling on my sleeve. 
Without further protest or delay, off we went, being sure to bring along a couple of bottles of water. 
Amazingly, less than a half hour from where we are at the ocean, past the retirement communities and endless strips of shopping malls, out past a few tree farms, one approaches the east edge of the vast Everglades. Immediately, everything is tranquil and the only sounds are the wind and the thwap of birds’ wings as they lift themselves from their nests. 
“This is wonderful,” I admitted to Rona, “Though my canoeing technique, such as it was, is rusty, I can’t wait to get onto the water. Imagine, being out there among the herons and whatever other birds there are.” 
“Egrets and ibis and anhinga, osprey and maybe even a golden eagle.” 
“I see you’ve been doing your homework.”
She smiled, “On the Internet it’s so easy.  Let’s get started. Right up there is where they rent canoes.” 
“Not a bad deal,” I said, “Only $32 dollars for the day.” 
“Plus a dollar each for seat backs,” Rona noted.
“I’m not sure we need them.  If we’re going to be authentic, let’s pass on the seat backs. Did you ever see a picture of an American Indian in a canoe with a seat back?”
“We’re not Indians and for two dollars,” Rona insisted, “let’s get them.” 
And so we did and, with Rona up front and me in the stern since I claimed to be better able to steer us from there, off we were pushed out into the wild Everglades by the canoe attendant, who told us, the trail is “only” 5.5 miles long and clearly marked. “Just keep paddling counterclockwise and you won’t get lost or into trouble.  If you do, just turn around and come right back.” 
“Trouble?  Come right back?” I asked tremulously, but he had given us such a firm push that we were well away from the landing and couldn’t hear me. Or had chosen to ignore me. He was well grizzled and had seen and heard it all. 
Not a hundred yards into the channel and already we were surrounded by wading and nesting birds. “Look at that,” Rona said, pointing ahead in full Sacajawea mode, I think that’s a giant blue heron.” 
And sure enough as we stopped paddling and silently glided ahead closer to where it was stalking, it was in fact a majestic heron.  It stopped in its tracks just as we came to rest and across the ages and phylums that classify and separate the world into what is considered to be a natural hierarchy, we stared in wonderment at each other and at Nature itself. 
When it took off to hunt in a different location, its wings spanning six or more feet, Rona enthused, “I can’t believe this. We’re less than ten miles from home and all the gas stations and so-called developments, and this is still going on. Just as it was before humans came this way and began to spoil things.” 
“Let’s not get too philosophical or environmentalist.  We have well over five miles to go and we need to work on our paddling technique if we’re to make it before it gets dark.” 
“The canoe guy told us it would take at most five hours to complete the loop. That is if we stopped at that rest platform he told us about that’s about two miles ahead.”
“Yeah, up to five hours if you know what you’re doing. We’ve gone only a couple of hundred yards and three times already we came close to crashing into the bank of the channel. We need to figure out how to coordinate our padding better.”
“OK Cochise, how do you suggest doing that?”
Ignoring Rona’s barb, I reminded her, “Recall, this all began with your remembering that I had done some canoeing eons ago and that all would be well. It will,” I quickly added, “if you up front, at the point, paddle on one side of the canoe and let me switch from side-to-side to do the steering and keep us in the middle of the channel.  How does that sound?”
“Whatever you say, Kimosabe.” She twisted in her seat to make sure I could see that she wasn’t annoyed at me and was still having a wonderful time. 
On ordinary days my right shoulder twinges because of the onset of arthritis, even when just typing on my laptop keyboard—like right now.  And so, while canoeing, especially when switching the paddle from left to right in an attempt to keep us centered, I was concerned that I would soon find myself in agony and we would have to turn around and, in a version of defeat, retreat clockwise back to the dock. But my macho was such that I determined not to allow that to happen—and if necessary to paddle while in pain—at least getting as far as the platform where baking in the sun for half an hour would loosen my joints. 
The pain, thankfully, was manageable, and on we paddled.  Our coordination improved as did our technique—I even managed a few classic J-strokes that I remembered learning in Boy Scout camp.
“Stop,” Rona whispered. “Look over there. Up in that tree with all the dead limbs.” She had stopped paddling and pointed to the right about 100 years from where we again glided to a stop. “Let’s use our binoculars.  I think that may be a female golden eagle.”
“Really? An eagle? I find that hard . . .“ 
“I told you,” she said in a hushed voice, “I did some research and I’m pretty sure I’m right.  Not a bald eagle, but a golden one.  They’re rare here but they have been spotted.”
“How rare can it be? We’re only about half a mile from where we were launched. That’s not my definition of rare. If we maybe saw one up in Alaska.  That would be rare.” 
She slid the glasses back to me along the bottom of the canoe.  “Take a look. See for yourself.”  Which I did and sure enough it looked like an eagle to me. I’m a bit color blind but it did indeed look sort of golden. 
“I think you’re right. It’s a female, sitting on what looks like a huge nest.” 
“It could be the male,” Rona corrected me, “They share the incubating. And it’s not a nest.  With eagles it’s an eyrie.” 
“Whatever. But I think you’re right. It does look like an eagle. A really huge one. It looks like it weighs 50 pounds.”
“Actually, females weigh about eleven pounds.” I was impressed by all that Rona knew, “But with all the feathers, puffed up while settled in the eyrie, I agree, she looks as if she weighs a lot more.”

For the next half hour we paddled in silence, keeping our eyes wide open looking for other rare species and finally got to the one-mile marker.  “Only four-and-a-half to go,” I grunted with a chuckle. I was already looking forward to the platform where we could rest and sit in the sun. But it was at least a mile further. 
Rona, who knows me better than I know myself, offered, “Maybe we should just sit here and rest awhile. Have some water and regain our strength. I’m also feeling a little weary.” 
“I’m not,” I pretended, “I’m feeling just fine. Ready to paddle all day.” 
“Have some water anyway.”  She slid a bottle back toward me.
“I think I’ll husband mine,” I said, “We only have a bottle each and God knows there won’t be any place along the way to get any more. We probably should have . . .” 
“Take a few swallows. You don’t want to get dehydrated. You know what happens to you when you do.  How you get dizzy.  I don’t want you passing out. We can’t call 911 from here and I don’t want to have to paddle us back all by myself.  My J-stroke is beginning to look more like a C-stroke and that won’t get us back before midnight.”  
At that thought, I took two big swallows and quickly felt my head clear. “And be sure to put some of this sunscreen on your ankles”—Rona slid the tube back along what was now a familiar pathway—“I don’t want you getting blisters there which will then turn into skin cancer. We have enough problems already with your arthritic shoulder.”  Had she been reading my mind? 
At the second mile marker I was very much looking forward to getting to the rest platform. Among other things I needed to urinate.  I was even having thoughts about not waiting until we got there, when from her privileged position up front Rona, pointing said, “I think I see it.”
“What are you seeing?”
“The platform where we can tie up and get out of the canoe to stretch our legs. Mine are getting stiff from all this crouching on this so-called seat.” 
“Maybe it would be more comfortable without the seatbacks we rented.” 
“You’re still on that case. Sometimes you can be . . .” 
“But you’re right,” we had glided forward another 50 yards, “That is the platform.”  It was a battered looking, weathered affair with no amenities whatsoever. Not a bench nor chair to sit on and of course no jug of water much less a portable toilet.  But still we were both eager to make a landing and get out of the canoe.
“Don’t paddle,” I said, “Let me do it so we can get in close.”  Which I managed to accomplish through a series of paddling techniques that came rushing back to me from decades ago.  
As we bumped gently against the side of the platform, I called out, “Reach for that cleat.  That’s where we’ll tie ‘er up.” 
“With what?” Rona growled.  “I don’t see anything to tie up with. Did they give us a rope? Did you bring one along?”
“I didn’t think . . .”
“Let’s forget it then,” she said.  “We’re doing fine.  We’re just about halfway to the end.  We’ll be all right. You can pee in the water if you have to.” 
I grumbled, “I don’t need to.  I’ll be OK. Though I continued to consider the alternatives. 
By the four-mile marker, though we were continuing to enjoy the land and waterscape as well as the animal life, we were weary, and though our paddling technique was periodically breaking down, we were proud of ourselves. We shared that thought without speaking it as we had also stopped most talk to conserve energy and not to reveal to each other how tired we in fact were. When we did speak it was in more in grunts than sentences. 
“Almost there,” I gasped.
“Mile to go,” Rona gulped.  I decided not to correct her. In a mile we would be close enough to the end to think we we had survived and could look forward to very soon dragging ourselves out of the canoe and then limp up to where we parked the car. 
“Stop . . . a . . . minute?” I suggested.
Without responding Rona, and then I, stopped paddling and flopped forward in our seats to catch our breath and think proudly about what we had already accomplished. For two very inexperienced canoers to paddle four miles into the heart of the Everglades felt pretty impressive, no matter how ungracefully we would drag ourselves back to where we had begun. 
The wind had picked up, fortunately from behind, and I knew that if it kept up it would both cool us and make the last lap a little easier to navigate.  It indeed was already propelling us forward while we sat gasping for air. 
But when I looked up I saw we were again heading for the channel bank.  From my position in the stern I began to paddle on the right side of the keel with all my remaining strength, but in spite of my efforts the wind was stronger than my stroking and toward the land we were headed.  There was so much vegetation growing in the channel itself that I was also concerned that unless I was able to steer us back into the middle we might wind up not only banging into the bank but also tangled in the water plants. Not a good scenario I worried. Especially with both of us so exhausted. 
Feeling my paddling, Rona too now was upright and on alert.  I again said, “Don’t paddle.  You’ll only interfere with my trying to straighten us out.  But get ready with your paddle to push against the bank in case I can’t manage to correct our course.  And be sure not to let the paddle slip out of your hand and lose it in the water. That would be one fine mess.” 
“That doesn’t make sense,” she said, “If both of us paddle on the same side won’t that help get us back into the channel?” 
“From my Boy Scout training I’m not sure that’s true. Trust me,” I heard her snort, “I think we can get more torque with just me in the rear using my J-stroke. You stand ready to push against the bank if necessary.” 
I heard Rona mutter, “As soon as we get home I’m going to do some research about proper canoeing technique.” 
“But between now and then get ready to repel us if it looks as if we’re going to slam into the land and get all snared there in these friggin weeds.” 
I was beginning to straighten us by furiously paddling forward and back, in this way trying to keep us from moving forward while turning on our axis.  That would keep us from colliding with the . . .” 
“Your about to hit that big log floating there along the bank.’  She was pointing straight ahead.  “If we do, with me up front here it could get ugly.” 
“Don’t worry,” I tired to reassure her, “But to be safe hang onto your seat in case we do hit the log. To keep your momentum from tipping you into the water.  Though I can see it’s shallow here and if that does happen you’ll be OK and I’ll easily be able to pull you back into the canoe.” 
“You’re arms are killing you and,” she said sarcastically, “and you’re telling me no problem—if I wind up in the water you’ll just reach out and pop me back into the boat?” 
“Right.  Don’t panic. Just stand on the bottom and I’ll be able to scoop you up and . . .” 
“That’s no log,” Rona whispered urgently. 
“What is it then?”  My paddling was managing to offset the force of the wind and we were as a result standing still in the water about three feet from the bank and the log.
“I think it’s a . . . oh my God it is!  It’s an alligator.  And a huge one.  Ten feet at least.” 
“Don’t panic I said,” trying to hide my own panic. “I think that if we remain calm and don’t agitate it it will just hang there and not bother with us.” 
“Did you learn that also in the Boy Scouts?” 
“Look, we have to work together now.  This is no one’s fault.  As you keep reminding me, we’re in Florida and there are sharks in the ocean right by where we live, sinkholes can swallow us even in I-95, and alligators can be anywhere.  Even on the grounds of gated condo communities.” 
“And three feet from where I’m sitting in this flimsy canoe.”
“It’s made of aluminum. So at least we don’t have to worry about that.”
Blessedly the wind subsided. And what breeze that remained had shifted and was helping to propel us back away from land and the gator. 
“I think we’ll be all right,” Rona said, expelling a deep breath.  “So maybe let’s just sit here for a few minutes.  How often are we going to have a chance to be at eye level with an alligator just a few feet from us?” 
“Just this one time feels like enough for me.”  In truth, now feeling safe, I, like Rona was fully enjoying this little adventure.  “And with everyone worrying about being sued, would they rent canoes to people if it was really dangerous?”
“Though remember all those waivers we had to sign before they rented it to us?”  I did and felt a second rush of concern.  “But why don’t we try to enjoy this.  We wanted an Everglades experience and between the eagle, the alligator, and paddling now more than four miles, I think this qualifies.”
“Agreed,” I smiled, in truth feeling rather good about myself.  
We had drifted and quietly paddled ourselves well back into the channel and swung to the left, again moving counterclockwise, to head toward the end of the loop. 
For the next forty-five minutes we said very little.  We were preoccupied with our thoughts and had little energy to spare. Our technique had completely broken down and we concentrated instead on just getting ourselves back to the dock in one piece.  If we were to do this again, we would be sure to do some research to learn about how to properly handle a canoe, especially how to steer it and to make rapid turns in case were encountered alligators or other threats. 
“I’ll bet you’re now enjoying that seat back I rented for you?”
“Indeed I am,” I confessed, “Best dollar we ever spent.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March 27, 2013--From Peggy Noonan

Generally not my favorite, Peggy Noonan in last week's Wall Street Journal, on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, had important things to say about its lingering effects on the Republican Party:

Can the Republican Party Recover From Iraq?
The air has been full of 10th-anniversary Iraq war retrospectives. One that caught my eye was a smart piece by Tom Curry, national affairs writer for NBC News, who wrote of one element of the story, the war's impact on the Republican Party: "The conflict not only transformed" the GOP, "but all of American politics."
It has, but it's an unfinished transformation.
Did the Iraq war hurt the GOP? Yes. The war, and the crash of '08, half killed it. It's still digging out, and whether it can succeed is an open question.
Here, offered in a spirit of open debate, is what the war did to the GOP:
It ruined the party's hard-earned reputation for foreign-affairs probity. They started a war and didn't win it. It was longer and costlier by every measure than the Bush administration said it would be. Before Iraq, the GOP's primary calling card was that it was the party you could trust in foreign affairs. For half a century, throughout the Cold War, they were serious about the Soviet Union, its moves, feints and threats. Republicans were not ambivalent about the need for and uses of American power, as the Democrats were in the 1970s and 1980s, but neither were they wild.
After Iraq it was the Republicans who seemed at best the party of historical romantics or, alternatively, the worst kind of cynic, which is an incompetent one. Iraq marked a departure in mood and tone from past conservatism.
It muddied up the meaning of conservatism and bloodied up its reputation. No Burkean prudence or respect for reality was evident. Ronald Reagan hated the Soviet occupation of the Warsaw Pact countries—really, hated the oppression and violence. He said it, named it, and forced the Soviets to defend it. He did not, however, invade Eastern Europe to liberate it. He used military power sparingly. He didn't think the right or lucky thing would necessarily happen. His big dream was a nuclear-free world, which he pursued daringly but peacefully.
It ended the Republican political ascendance that had begun in 1980. This has had untold consequences, and not only in foreign affairs. And that ascendance was hard-earned. By 2006 Republicans had lost the House, by 2008 the presidency. Mr. Curry quotes National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru at a recent debate at the American Enterprise Institute: "You could make the argument that the beginning of the end of Republican dominance in Washington was the Iraq War, at least a stage of the Iraq War, 2005-06." In 2008 a solid majority of voters said they disapproved of the war. Three-quarters of them voted for Barack Obama.
It undermined respect for Republican economic stewardship. War is costly. No one quite knows or will probably ever know the exact financial cost of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is interesting in itself. Some estimates put it at $1 trillion, some $2 trillion. Mr. Curry cites a Congressional Budget Office report saying the Iraq operation had cost $767 billion as of January 2012. Whatever the number, it added to deficits and debt, and along with the Bush administration's domestic spending helped erode the Republican Party's reputation for sobriety in fiscal affairs.
It quashed debate within the Republican Party. Political parties are political; politics is about a fight. The fight takes place at the polls and in debate. But the high stakes and high drama of the wars—and the sense within the Bush White House that it was fighting for our very life after 9/11—stoked an atmosphere in which doubters and critics were dismissed as weak, unpatriotic, disloyal. The GOP—from top, the Washington establishment, to bottom, the base—was left festering, confused and, as the years passed, lashing out. A conservative movement that had prided itself, in the 1970s and 1980s, on its intellectualism—"Of a sudden, the Republican Party is the party of ideas," marveled New York's Democratic Sen. Pat Moynihan in 1979—seemed no longer capable of an honest argument. Free of internal criticism, national candidates looked daffy and reflexively aggressive—John McCain sang "Bomb, Bomb Iran"—and left the party looking that way, too.
It killed what remained of the Washington Republican establishment. This was not entirely a loss, to say the least. But establishments exist for a reason: They're supposed to function as The Elders, and sometimes they're actually wise. During Iraq they dummied up—criticizing might be bad for the lobbying firm. It removed what credibility the establishment had. And they know it.
All this of course is apart from the central tragedy, which is the human one—the lost lives, the wounded, the families that will now not be formed, or that have been left smaller, and damaged.
Iraq and Afghanistan have ended badly for the Republicans, and the party won't really right itself until it has candidates for national office who can present a new definition of what a realistic and well-grounded Republican foreign policy is, means and seeks to do. That will take debate. The party is now stuck more or less in domestic issues. As for foreign policy, they oppose Obama. In the future more will be needed.
Many writers this week bragged about their opposition to the war, or defended their support of it. I'm not sure what good that does, but since I'm calling for debate, here we go.
I had questions about an invasion until Colin Powell testified before the U.N. in February 2003. In a column soon after: "From the early days of the debate I listened to the secretary of state closely and with respect. I was glad to see a relative dove in the administration. It needed a dove. Mr. Powell's war-hawk foes seemed to me both bullying and unrealistic. Why not go slowly to war? A great nation should show a proper respect for the opinion of mankind, it should go to the world with evidence and argument, it should attempt to win allies. A lot of people tracked Mr. Powell's journey, and in a way took it with him. Looking back I think I did too."
Mr. Powell told the U.N. Saddam Hussein must be stopped and asserted that Iraq had developed and was developing weapons of mass destruction. That turned out not to be true.
But I believed it, supported the war, and cheered the troops. My break came in 2005, with two columns that questioned Mr. Bush's thinking, his core premises and assumptions, as presented in his Second Inaugural Address. That questioning in time became sharp criticism, accompanied by a feeling of estrangement. In the future I would feel a deeper skepticism toward both parties.
So that was my Iraq, wronger than some at the start, righter than some at the end, and not shocked by the darkening picture I saw when I went there in 2011.
Henry Kissinger said recently that he had in his lifetime seen America enthusiastically enter four wars and struggle in the end to end each of them.
Maybe great nations do not learn lessons, they relearn them.
I called for a serious Republican debate on its foreign policy, but the Democrats need one too. What's their overarching vision? Do they have a strategy, or only sentiments?
There's a lot of Republican self-criticism and self-examination going on. What about the Democrats'?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

March 26, 2013--Passing Over

Too much Manischewitz last night. I will be back tomorrow.

Monday, March 25, 2013

March 25, 2013-- Shibboleths

I've spend considerable time during the past few years thinking about political shibboleths--specifically, why conservatives continue to believe in policies that have been proven time-after-time not to be true or that don't work.

Like cut taxes on the wealthy and watch how that creates jobs. (It doesn't.) Or invade places such as Iraq and democracy will spread throughout the region. (It didn't.) Or how Obamacare will lead to "death panels." (It doesn't.) Or how privatizing public schools and giving vouchers to parents to offset the cost of private education will lead to enhanced student outcomes. (They don't.)

You get the picture.

So while standing on my high-progressive-horse and pointing out these self-deceptions (or cynical panderings) I never felt the equivalent need to search to see if there are liberal versions.

Since liberals are objective minded, I have myself convinced, and take positions that are evidence-based, no need to do much more than refine what we already know to be the truth. And while doing that, stand back and enjoy watching how Republicans tie themselves up in absurdities or, at best, in belief-driven ideologies that can't stand up to close, empirical scrutiny.

While wondering out load about this--checking myself out to see if I have been guilty of embracing a few shibboleths of my own--Rona asked, "What about welfare reform?"

"That's worth thinking about," I acknowledged. "How we liberals said when Clinton agreed to go along with Republican efforts to end it 'as we know it,' it would turn out to be a disaster."

"That millions on welfare," Rona said, "would wind up living on the streets. And how . . ."

"That really didn't happen."

"And how research about its impact shows that welfare-to-work, though not perfect, works pretty well."

"That's a good example," I confessed. "How about Medicare reform? Is that another example of us believing in something that may turn out not to be true?"

"For instance?"

"For instance, when it was enacted by Congress in 1965, we already knew there was a huge Baby Boom population bulge so that beginning in about 2005 a great many Americans would be eligible for it. If the framers were paying attention, when thinking about the long-term costs, they could, should have taken that into consideration."

"And also that life expectancy would increase and that too would have significant costs associated with it."

"Right. So let's assume that the econometrics at the time took that into consideration--though I doubt that they ran the numbers sufficiently. But then between 1965 and now there have been all sorts of medical advances that were not anticipated and which are very expensive to administer."

"For example, I don't think MRIs and CAT scans were in widespread use then, maybe not yet even  invented."

"The MRI was invented in the early 50s, so that's a good example."

"We could make a long list of tests, surgeries, therapies, pharmaceuticals--all quiet expensive--that have come into existence during the nearly 50 years since Medicare was legislated."

"So combining longer lives and the many new and very costly things that can be done to and for you, there has not been a restructuring of the Medicare funding formulas. This is one reason why it alone will eventually bankrupt the country."

Rona said, "Maybe this is one of your liberal beliefs--to ignore the unanticipated costs of these demographic realities and advances in health care services while resisting any structural reexamination of the program itself and what it provides."

"That maybe because we prefer to ignore the evidence in order to continue to be able to believe what we want to believe, we are acting inconsistently, in ways similar to how we claim conservatives behave."

"Some,"Rona smiled, "would call it hypocrisy.

Friday, March 22, 2013

March 22, 2013--Smart

"I don't want a phone smarter than me," said Nancy the other morning at the news shop.

This came up when we were discussing telephones--the new phone at the shop doesn't allow them to take credit cards and she was feeling frustrated that they were told they'd have to wait two weeks to have a new hard-wired one installed.

I thought her line about smart phones was both funny and smart. I too don't want one of those phones. And, confessedly, maybe for the same reason. So if I can cover up with a little humor my own feelings of inadequacy about being passed by by time and technology, all the better. And, so, thank you Nancy for a way to think about this.

I hate seeing couples in restaurants not talking while waiting to be served but rather both engaged in texting, or whatever it is that they might doing with their iPhones. I've joked that maybe they're so used to texting and tweeting that that's how, even when they're together, they engage each other.

I hate it in the morning when we're in the elevator and someone gets on with her head buried in an android and doesn't even look up to exchange a perfunctory hello.

I hate it while walking down Broadway when someone reading text messages bumps into me as if I don't exist.

In fact, this feeling of not existing is a metaphor for my problem--unless I get with the technologies and social networking of the 21st century I'll remain relegated to the 20th. Just more evidence that I'm getting old, irrelevant, and essential things are passing me by at warp speed.

So I turned to the history of other paradigm-shifting innovations to see if that might offer some reassurance, some comfort about my own fear of obsolescence. But unfortunately that didn't work very well.

When the Gutenberg printing press of 1436 made the production of books inexpensive--making hand-written manuscripts obsolete and democratized reading--there was great resistance to popularly available books by the noble and priestly elites that had a monopoly on learning and power since hand-produced manuscripts were rare and expensive. They feared that the proliferation of knowledge that printed books would lead to would undermine their hegemony. And they were right--there was soon the Protestant Reformation and one-by-one over the centuries monarchies and absolute governments were overthrown.

Then I thought about economic innovations such as machines powered by steam and then electricity which lead to the Industrial Revolution. Craft workers sensed the implication of these new ways to manufacture goods and some--Luddites--went about smashing the new machines. And they were right to see the threat to their previously central place in the world.

And then there have been the cascade of communications technologies from the telegraph to the telephone to radio and TV and now the Internet. All along the way there were people like me decrying and resisting, ostensibly worried about the negative impact these innovations would have on the economy, power structure, culture, and--most important--them. And in all instances they were right, as I am certain I am.

In every instance from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg even consciousness has been changed--the very ways in which we think, how we perceive, what we value, how we are governed, and moment-to-moment how we live our lives.

So, Nancy, sorry. Clever line about not wanting to have a phone smarter than you, so you'd better get with the program. On the other hand, she does sell physical newspapers and magazines and so . . .

I should leave Nancy out of this. But what about me?

I want to be with it, I want to be cool, I want to be able to "communicate" with younger friends and relatives who don't even have traditional telephones and have already moved on from e-mails. I had better get with the facebooking and twittering and texting (though that could be a problem since I have the beginning of arthritis in my thumbs) or get used to the fact that folks like me are headed for cultural and social extinction.

So it's good that there's an AT&T store nearby where maybe I can . . .

Thursday, March 21, 2013

March 21, 2013--Epilogue: Heshy Has the Final Word

“Shameless," Heshy said, "That’s what you are.  Shameless.”
I don’t know why I called.  The last time we spoke I promised myself I would never again do that.  We had drifted so far apart during the decades after I left the old neighborhood that all I had gotten from him in recent years were complaints, criticism, and grief.  But maybe it was because after completing this I needed once more, one last time, to check in and awkwardly seek closure.  And so I called. 
But before I could put two words together, he was again on my case.  I didn’t ask in what ways he thought I was shameless, but as usual he wasn’t shy about telling me—“Because of what you wrote about your long-suffering mother.  You won’t even leave her alone after the life she had and after all her efforts to protect you from what she saw as threats while providing you with the very things that contributed to your having a good life.”
“But I . . .”
“Probing, that’s what you specialize in, always rooting around for dirt about your family and the old days so you can use it in your stories.  A failure of imagination is what I call it.  Why not simply make stuff up?  I know, I know . . .”  I tried to interject, but he talked right over me, “Because you can’t.  It’s as simple as that.”
“That’s not . . .”
“Fair?  I’ll tell you what’s not fair.”  I held back.  “She’s still alive, isn’t she?  It’s even worse that, right?  Not only is she still alive but she’s also fully compos mentis, right, and can read what you've written about her.”  I should have just hung up.  “And in spite of that you ‘killed her off,’ as they say in your business.  Your own mother.  For a cheap effect?  Oh, I know you’ll say because in this so-called novel of yours it’s poetic or novelistic license to do whatever’s necessary for the sake of the story or, as I’m sure you would put it—the ‘narrative.’” 
My mother was in fact very much still alive and fully alert.  And Heshy was right, I did “kill her off” for narrative symmetry.  I would have kept her alive if this were a simple memoir. The subject of an earlier debate with him, which I had no desire to relitigate.  Didn’t he understand any of this?  Though he was a premed and eventually went to medical school he always was a reader.  Of literature.  Not just best sellers.
So I stammered, “As usual you either don’t get it or, in regard to anything having to do with me, don’t pass up any opportunity to trash me and my work.”
“In that case, why the fuck do you keep calling me?
“To tell you the truth I keep asking myself the same question.  If I were still seeing a shrink, that would be the first thing I’d want to talk about.”
“I’m far from a shrink—as you put it, I’m still a ‘dick doctor’—but I did take Psych 101 a hundred years ago and for my two cents I’d urge you to get to a shrink pronto.  In fact, I’d suggest you call 911 and ask them to send one over right away.  I consider you not just a mess but in need of a psychoanalytic intervention.”
Maybe he’s right, I thought.  A lot of this is my attempt to imagine my way into the simple details of my life as I lived it, seeking meaning that is of more general significance. In the hope that . . .
“I know what you’re thinking,” he interrupted my thinking, “You’re feeling good about yourself because you believe you found some universal truths about growing up as we did after the Second World War, how we experienced the echoes of the Holocaust, and the trajectory of you personal experiences, including your more-than-checkered career.”
How did he know?  “And, then there is all the posturing and pretentiousness.”
“About this I have to interrupt your rant.”  He was getting under my skin.  “If anything, I’ve tried to be self-effacing, even ironic and mocking about anything pertaining to myself, I mean my alter-ego—Lloyd Zazlo.”
“No, really, give me an example of what you call my posturing.  You should have one or two handy if you feel so strongly about this.”
“In fact I have one right here, from part three, from the last story—I’m sorry, chapter.  I underlined it so I wouldn’t forget it.”
“Go on.  Shoot.  Or better," I didn't want to encourage violence, "read it to me.”
“It’s right here on page 727, if you want to check if I’m misquoting you.”
“Just read it.  I don’t have all day.”
“You can hang up if you want.  It's your dime.  Remember, you’re the one who called.”
“Just read it would you!”
“About Lloyd Zazlo you wrote, and I quote--
. . . the persona or alter ego I had invented, I hoped he, Lloyd Zazlo, would add at least, perhaps a footnote to what we had learned from Stephen Daedulus or, much closer to my heart, Nathan Zuckerman. 
“If this isn’t posturing I don’t know what is.”
“I knew you’d pick that out.”  I thought I finally had him.  “It’s the opposite of posturing.  It’s self-deprecating.  Did you miss the perhaps a footnote?  How I noted, even made fun of my own insignificance?  I don’t see how anyone would see that as self-aggrandizing.” 
“You’re being ridiculous.  Don’t you see it’s pretentious even to have Lloyd Zazlo in the same sentence as Phillip Roth’s and James Joyce’s alter egos?  But that’s what you did.”  I could hear him take a self-satisfied deep breath.  “Case closed.”
“Well, I . . .  Maybe,” I stammered, “maybe you’re right.”  I heard his familiar guffaw.  It took me right back to our days together on East 56th Street.  “About that, but . . .”
“No buts, thank you.  We’re finally getting close to the truth you claim so much to cherish.” 
Deflated, I squeaked, “I’m thinking, maybe, if this goes to a second edition, perhaps I’ll edit that out.  My basic point, though still is that . . .” 
“If this sells enough to justify a second edition,” he was chocking from laughing at me, “maybe I’ll consider forgiving you for being such a shit.”